Michelle Banik is the daughter and granddaughter of strong women.
She is also the mother of a strong daughter, a 13-year-old who recently redecorated Banik’s home office space with a print featuring a diverse mosaic of women – then appropriated for herself a placard reading “the future is female.”
“The matriarchy in my family is strong and deep, and I’m incredibly proud of it,” Banik said in an interview.
Little wonder, then, that Banik, BA’92 (English) pushed herself to a career of leadership and innovation at several companies, including as head of human resources at OMERS, one of Canada’s largest pension plans.
Banik is also among the newest members of Western’s Board of Governors, a role that helps guide the university’s fiscal and strategic direction.
Since 2016, she has also been a member of the advisory council at the School for Advanced Studies in the Arts and Humanities.
“I’m a proud Western alumna and I’m very much a proud arts grad too. Grads come with a number of different backgrounds and degrees in hand and, if there’s an assumption that a liberal arts degree only leads in a particular way or one defined path, I want people to understand that’s not the case. You can take any number of different paths and contribute in ways that are meaningful.
“Personally, in my career and in the leadership journey I’ve had, I’ve been able to use that arts degree to bring diverse thinking and a different level of curiosity to the business world.”
As the university moves toward greater equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI), Banik believes she has a role to play in shaping that future.
“In many respects, I think of myself as a builder,” she said. “My hope is to bring a perspective, including a diversity perspective, to the conversations and the strategies around how the university advances.
“I think at times, certain words create a lot of tension and people struggle with that. But what if we reframed things and saw that tension as a gap between what we know – or what we think we know – and new information that’s being introduced? Then we have choices in terms of what we do when faced with that new information.”
Born and raised in Toronto, Banik is a first-generation Canadian shaped in a one-parent household by her no-nonsense Jamaican-Chinese mother. “She taught me from a very early age that I have to work hard, and just because I didn’t look like everybody else that must not stop me from accomplishing things.”
Banik learned the same persistence from her maternal grandmother, a Jamaican émigré to the United States who lived until age 106, long enough to marvel that an African-American could become president.
“She was a resourceful, determined woman, and I learned so much from her.”
Banik’s grandmother would say, “If you fall down and fail, that’s okay. Just get up, just get up. No matter what people think, you’re going to be successful.”
These lessons were Banik’s guiding star at Western and afterwards as she risked and stumbled, then risked and succeeded along a winding road that led her to OMERS.
During her nine years there, she played a key role in driving the people and culture agenda forward during the pension plan’s international growth to more than $100 billion in assets under management.
She said Western’s Board of Governors’ continued commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion includes clearing a path for everyone to recognize and realize their potential.
It’s a process of listening without rushing to offer immediate solutions; about having both the curiosity to seek others’ perspectives and the humility to hear them, she said.
“When we advance discussions about being a more inclusive environment, it’s really about creating space for mutual learning.
“We need to be able to listen and learn – and, frankly, sometimes to unlearn – in order to go down a path to co-create the right actions and co-create the solutions.”
Banik also earned a diversity and inclusion certificate from Cornell University and completed executive education from The Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School.
In addition to Western’s board, Banik serves on the boards of Empire Company Limited (owner of Sobeys) and BGC Canada (formerly called Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada).